A debut feature is a tricky show to review. Any first-time effort is bound to bring with it a few issues stemming from lack of experience and exposure, but the audience brings with them a sense of anticipation: Could this be brand new talent? Will tonight be the first success in a long career? Opposed to the expectations of a seasoned playwright or director, it ought to be a welcome audience for the first-timer, because they tend to be a little more forgiving.
Peddling is actor-turned-playwright Harry Melling’s first play, which he starred in during its runs in New York and London. Melling’s is a face most viewers will recognise as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter movies, but he has racked up a few theatre credits in King Lear and a couple of productions at London’s National Theatre. Say what you will about the young Harry Potter troupe, but if Melling, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are anything to go by, they’re not headed down the typical path of the child actor-turned-train wreck.
Melling’s play is a one-person show in the form of a monologue spoken by a nameless ‘boy’, here played by Darcy Brown in his first MTC production. The boy works as a peddler in the Young Offender’s Scheme, going door-to-door and trying to sell ‘everyday essentials’ to homeowners who regularly slam the door in his face. He’s dropped off at the beginning of the play by the Bossman and winds up coming across a familiar face, which sends him on a journey of redemption.
Joining Brown on stage is drummer and percussionist Bec Matthews, whose frenetic beats and atmospheric chimes set the tone of the piece. Occasionally she and Brown establish a synergy between the rhythmic language and well-placed kick drums, as well as a few humorous interactions. Matthews is so good she often steals the show, drawing the audience’s gaze away from its star. Her switching between drumming styles and matching the pace of the language are an unusual mastery; who knew drums could be such an effective purveyor of mood?
Marg Horwell’s set design is minimalistic, consisting mainly of a curved ramp that looks like a half-pipe bent out of shape. Brown sleeps atop this, slides down it and crawls underneath it, often looking a little claustrophobic in the tiny set. Andy Turner’s lighting casts some big shadows off Brown’s poses which work to emphasise the boy’s isolation, but he has a fondness for orange floodlights and bright spotlights, creating a stark—if a little unvaried—aesthetic.
All of these parts of director Susie Dee’s production of Peddling attempt to serve Melling’s ambitious, wordy script—which is unfortunately the play’s weakest aspect. Touching on themes of classism in the way the homeowners’ treat the boy, Melling’s play strives for importance but fails to achieve it. Starting out with a fairly tight narrative exploring the characters’ job and his relationship to the Bossman, things spiral out of control when the play turns surreal. A dream sequence in which Brown is atop the half-pipe, frozen as a concrete statue, is a nice bit of physicality on the actor’s part, but the narrative has strayed so far that all the metaphorical messages flail around without a grounded story to give them meaning. Melling seems to try to talk about everything and winds up saying nothing.
Despite trying to evoke the trials of a homeless convicted felon, Melling’s writing has none of the grit it needs to evoke realism, achieved by Harold Pinter’s plays or the lived experience in George Orwell’s writings. The writing does succeed occasionally in some rhyming schemes and beat-poetic rhythms, such as the simple ‘House to house, door to door’ refrain or the rather elegant ‘Long list of yesterdays’ in which the character is adrift. Otherwise, the script works best when Brown and Matthews bring it to life through music and performance. Brown throws his strong body into the material, showing a lot of enthusiasm during a baptism scene and some reserved character acting when he tidies himself up before peddling wares at the next house.
A solid, if unremarkable production undercut by its mostly tedious script, Peddling showcases fine talent and a set appropriately designed for a character piece. Here’s to hoping we see more pairings of rhythm instruments and poetic scripts spoken by vivacious performers—especially if the material can tell a more compelling tale.